BBC, NHS, Church, Parliament – even Whips’ Office – all covered by independent probe
By Alex Varley-Winter, Tim Wood and Frederika Whitehead | 7 July 2014
Home secretary Theresa May went to the House of Commons this afternoon to make a statement that related to child sex abuse.
As anticipation grew in Westminster in advance of the statement, following a weekend of disclosures that engulfed the government in a crisis over claims of a network of paedophile politicians and other VIPs, Whitehall sources indicated that David Cameron, prime minister, and the home secretary, were planning to shift from their initial attempt to brush aside concerns about an unfolding scandal.
The number of MPs who were calling for an overarching, panel inquiry into the organised sexual abuse of children rose to 146.
“Will she confirm whether the inquiry will consider any allegations or evidence held by the whips?” – Mark Reckless, Conservative MP
By this morning, several newspapers ran articles that demanded the government should launch the inquiry, as requested initially by a cross-party group of seven MPs.
As May held a series of last-minute meetings in an attempt to finalise the details of her statement, a group of eminent Lords added to the pressure. Baroness Butler-Sloss, former High Court judge, and the bishop of Durham were among 11 Lords – including six specialists in child protection – who joined the call for an overarching inquiry into child sex abuse.
May stood up in the House of Commons at 3.35pm to read her statement to MPs:
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the sexual abuse of children, allegations that evidence of the sexual abuse of children was suppressed by people in positions of power, and the government’s intended response.
I want to address two important public concerns: first, that in the 1980’s the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse; and, second, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children.
I also want to set out three important principles. First, we will do everything we can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators, and we will do nothing to jeopardise those aims. Second, where possible, the government will adopt a presumption of maximum transparency. Third, we will make sure that wherever individuals and institutions have failed to protect children from harm, we will expose those failures and learn the lessons.
Concern that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child abuse in the 1980’s relates mainly to information provided to the department by the late Geoffrey Dickens, who was a member of this House between 1979 and 1995.
As the House will be aware, in February 2013, in response to a parliamentary question from the honourable member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Mark Sedwill, commissioned an investigation by an independent expert into information that the Home Office received in relation to child-abuse allegations, including information provided by Mr Dickens. In order to be confident that all relevant information was included, the investigation reviewed all relevant papers available relating to child abuse between 1979 and 1999.
The investigation reported last year, and its executive summary was published on August 1, 2013. It concluded that there was no single “Dickens dossier”, but that there had been letters from Mr Dickens to several home secretaries over several years that contained allegations of sexual offences against children. Copies of the letters had not been kept, but the investigator found evidence that the information Mr Dickens had provided had been considered, and matters requiring investigation had been referred to the police.
In total, the investigator found 13 items of information about alleged child abuse. The police already knew about nine of those items, and the remaining four were passed by the Home Office to the police immediately. The investigation found that 114 potentially relevant files were not available. Those are presumed by the Home Office and the investigator to be destroyed, missing or not found, although the investigator made clear that he found no evidence to suggest that the files had been removed or destroyed inappropriately.
The investigation found no record of specific allegations by Mr Dickens of child sex abuse by prominent public figures. On completion of the investigation, the Home Office passed the full text of its interim report and final report, along with accompanying information and material, to the police for them to consider as part of their ongoing criminal investigations.
As Mark Sedwill has said, the investigator recorded that he had unrestricted access to Home Office records, and he received full co-operation from Home Office officials. The investigator was satisfied that the Home Office passed all credible information about child abuse in the time period, from Mr Dickens and elsewhere, to the police so it could be investigated properly.
I believe that the permanent secretary, in listening to the allegations made by the honourable member for West Bromwich East and ordering an independent investigation, did all the right things. I am confident that the work he commissioned was carried out in good faith, but with such serious allegations the public need to have complete confidence in the integrity of the investigation’s findings.
I have, therefore, today appointed Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the NSPCC, to lead a review not just of the investigation commissioned by Mark Sedwill, but of how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them. Peter Wanless will be supported in this work by an appropriate senior legal figure, who will be appointed by the permanent secretary. Where the findings of the review relate to the director of public prosecutions, it will report to the attorney general, as well as to me.
I will ask the review team to advise my officials on what redactions to the full investigation report might be needed in order that, in the interests of transparency, it can be published without jeopardising any future criminal investigations or trials. I expect the review to conclude within 8 to 10 weeks, and I will place a copy of its terms of reference in the House library today.
In addition to the allegations made by Geoffrey Dickens, there have also been allegations relating to an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange, a paedophile campaign group that was disbanded in 1984. In response to another query from the honourable member for West Bromwich East, the permanent secretary commissioned another independent investigation in January this year into whether the Home Office had ever directly or indirectly funded PIE. That investigation concluded that the Home Office had not done so, and I will place a copy of the investigation’s findings in the House library today. To ensure complete public confidence in the work, however, I have also asked Peter Wanless to look at that investigation as part of his review.
I now turn to public concern that a variety of public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children. In recent years, we have seen appalling cases of organised and persistent child sex abuse, including abuse by celebrities such as Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, as well as the systematic abuse of vulnerable girls in Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns and cities. Some of those cases have exposed a failure by public bodies to take their duty of care seriously, and some have shown that the organisations responsible for protecting children from abuse – including the police, social services and schools – have failed to work together properly.
That is why, in April 2013, the government established the national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which is led by my honourable friend the minister for crime prevention (Norman Baker). That cross-government group was established to learn the lessons from some of the cases I have mentioned and the resulting reviews and inquiries.
As a result of its work, we now have better guidance for the police and prosecutors, new powers for the police to get information from hotels that are used for child sexual exploitation, and better identification of children at risk of exploitation through the use of local multi-agency safeguarding hubs. In the normal course of its work, the group will publish further proposals to protect children from abuse.
I know that in recent months many members of the House from all parties have campaigned for an independent, overarching inquiry into historical allegations of child abuse. In my correspondence with the seven members of Parliament who wrote to me about the campaign – the honourable members for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), my honourable friends the members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), and the honourable members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for Wells (Tessa Munt), and for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) – I made it clear that the government did not rule out such an inquiry.
I can now tell the House that the government will establish an independent inquiry panel of experts in the law and child protection to consider whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.
The inquiry panel will be chaired by an appropriately senior and experienced figure. It will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman and other members of the panel. Given the scope of its work, it is not likely to report before the general election, but I will make sure that it provides an update on its progress to Parliament before May next year. I will report back to the House when the inquiry panel chairman has been appointed and the full terms of reference have been agreed.
The inquiry will, like the inquiries into Hillsborough and the murder of Daniel Morgan, be a non-statutory panel inquiry. That means that it can begin its work sooner and, because the basis of its early work will be a review of documentary evidence rather than interviews with witnesses who might themselves still be subject to criminal investigations, it will be less likely to prejudice those investigations.
I want to be clear, however, that the inquiry panel will have access to all the government papers, reviews and reports that it needs. Subject to the constraints imposed by any criminal investigations, it will be free to call witnesses from organisations in the public and private sectors, and in wider civil society. I want to make it clear that if the inquiry panel chairman deems it necessary, the government is prepared to convert it into a full public inquiry, in line with the Inquiries Act 2005.
I began my statement by saying that I wanted to address dual concerns: the concern that, in the past, the Home Office failed to act on information it received, and more broadly the concern that public bodies and other institutions have failed to protect children from sexual abuse. I believe that the measures that I have announced today address those concerns.
I also said that I wanted the work that we are doing to reflect three principles. First, our priority must be the prosecution of the people behind these disgusting crimes. Second, wherever possible and consistent with the need to prosecute, we will adopt a presumption of maximum transparency. Third, where there has been a failure to protect children from abuse, we will expose it and learn from it. I believe that the measures announced today reflect those important principles, and I commend this statement to the House.
MPs debated the statement, and we have run some key extracts:
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary: “Too often, the system has failed young victims, not hearing or believing them when they cried out for help, and failing to protect them from those who sought to harm them. There have been particularly troubling cases of abuse involving powerful people and celebrities, and the failure of institutions to act. As members in all parts of the House and from all parties have made clear, when allegations go to the heart of Whitehall or Westminster, it is even more important to demonstrate that strong action will be taken to find out the truth and get justice for the victims.
“The home secretary is right to announce today that she has changed her position on and response to child abuse, but I want to press her on the detail. We need three things: justice and support for victims; the truth about what happened and how the Home Office and others responded; and stronger child protection and reforms for the future.
“Any allegation that a child was abused, even decades ago, must be thoroughly investigated by the police. Will she tell us whether all the allegations uncovered or put forward in any of these investigations will be covered by ‘Operation Fernbridge’? Will the files that she said had been passed to the police go to Operation Fernbridge? We understand that it has only seven full-time officers working on it. Does she think that they have the resources and investigators they need? She referred to the importance of prosecutions when there have been child sexual offences. She will know that prosecutions have dropped in recent years. Does she believe that that is cause for concern, when recorded offences have increased?”
“We need to know what happened when the allegations were first made decades ago. The home secretary will know that former cabinet ministers have said that there may have been a cover-up. The previous response from the Home Office was not adequate; the 2013 review to which she referred was not announced to Parliament, did not reveal that more than 100 files had gone missing, and has never been published. Will she tell the House whether she or other ministers saw that review, and whether they were told about the missing files?
“I raised the issue of the need for an overarching inquiry directly with her in Parliament 18 months ago, when she made a statement about abuse in care homes in north Wales. She and the prime minister rejected the need for such an inquiry at the time, but I welcome her agreement to it now. There is currently a range of reviews and investigations in care homes, the BBC, the NHS and now in the Home Office. Also, more recently, there is an inquiry into events in Rochdale and Rotherham.
“At their heart, they all have a similar problem: child victims were not listened to, heard or protected, and too many institutions let children down. Reform of those individual institutions must not be delayed, but isolated reforms are not enough. An inquiry needs to draw together the full picture to look at the institutional failures of the past and to examine the child protection systems that we have in place that may continue to fail children today.”
May: “The right honourable lady asked whether all the matters that are felt to be for the police to investigate will be matters for Operation Fernbridge. Actually, a number of investigations are taking place across the country into historical cases of child abuse; it is not appropriate that all those investigations will be in relation to Operation Fernbridge.
“The National Crime Agency, for example, is leading on ‘Operation Pallial’, which is the investigation into potential sexual abuse in children’s care homes in north Wales, and other investigations are taking place elsewhere. All allegations do not necessarily go to a single force; they go to whichever force is the most appropriate to deal with the particular cases and to ensure that people can be brought to justice.”
“The right honourable member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) asked what I had seen as home secretary. I saw the executive summary of both the interim report and the final report commissioned by Mark Sedwill. I did not see the full report for very good reason: the matters that lay behind the report were allegations that senior members of Parliament – and, in particular, senior Conservative members of Parliament – may have been involved in those activities.
“I therefore thought that it was absolutely right and proper that the commissioning of the investigation and the work that was done should be led by the permanent secretary at the Home Office, not by a Conservative politician.”
Tom Watson (Labour): “Frightened survivors of child abuse deserve the truth. I hope and think that they will welcome today’s statement, particularly the announcement that they will have access to all documentation. Will the inquiry team be able to see the files of the Special Branch, the intelligence services and any submissions made to previous prime ministers on people such as Sir Peter Hayman and others?”
May: “May I first commend the honourable gentleman for the work he has done over a number of years on these issues? He and a number of other honourable members and honourable friends have been relentless in their pursuit of these issues and their determination to bring truth and justice for the victims.
“As I said in my statement, my intention is that the fullest possible access should be made to government papers in relation to these matters. As I am sure he and others will recognise, where there are issues relating to who can have access to some files, we will need to have an appropriate means of ensuring that the information is available to the inquiry panel. However, as I have said, I am looking to appoint a very senior figure to chair the panel, so I expect it to be possible to ensure that all government papers are available.”
Cheryl Gillan (Conservative): “I thank the home secretary for her swift and decisive action in this case… As there is still no duty to report suspected abuse, will she ask the inquiries to look again at mandatory reporting of suspected abuse in regulated activities? I have already discussed that with the secretary of state for education (Michael Gove) and hope that the home secretary will take it up as well.”
May: “I will indeed raise the specific issue with my right honourable friend the secretary of state for education, but it is exactly those sorts of issues that I expect the inquiry panel to look at: namely, are there any gaps in what we currently do that mean we are not properly protecting children and, if there are, what appropriate mechanisms could be put in place to ensure that those gaps are filled?”
Duncan Hames (Liberal Democrat): “I warmly welcome the home secretary’s statement. Whatever disagreements we may have, she has always been outspoken in confronting complacency and corruption wherever she finds it. When former public servants give evidence to the inquiry panel, will they be released from any obligations they may have under gagging clauses in severance agreements or, where necessary, the Official Secrets Act?”
May: “My honourable friend raises a very important point. It is my intention that people should have the ability to speak openly in giving evidence to the inquiry panel if they are called as witnesses, or in giving written evidence if they so wish. I will have to look at the legal issues around the Official Secrets Act, but it is intended that everybody should have the ability to speak openly. Only if people can speak openly will we get to the bottom of these matters.”
Simon Danczuk (Labour): “I welcome the home secretary’s statement. Survivors of child sex abuse are very brave in dealing with the horrific attacks that they have had to endure. How will the proposed inquiry engage with, and thoroughly involve, the victims of child sex abuse?”
May: “I think it would be most appropriate for the chairman and panel themselves to decide what to do on that matter, rather than government trying to tell them what to do. Once the name of the chairman is announced, I am sure that members of this House who have experience of dealing with these matters will wish to make their views known, but I think it is best to leave it to the chairman and panel to identify how they wish to work and take evidence and comments from people. May I commend the honourable gentleman, who is another member of this House who has done a great deal of work on this matter in trying to uncover the truth about those who have been victims?”
Nicola Blackwood (Conservative): “Does the secretary of state agree that, in addition to access to government and police papers, transparency from local authorities will be essential to achieving a just and effective inquiry? How does she intend to achieve such transparency?”
May: “She is right: I intend the terms of reference for the panel of inquiry to be drawn quite widely, and they will therefore relate not just to central government papers. I will publish the terms of reference in due course, when it has been possible to discuss them with the appointed chairman. She is also right that local authorities, with both their direct responsibilities for child protection and their responsibilities for placing children in care of various sorts, will be an important source of information.”
Ronnie Campbell (Labour): “Will the home secretary look at ‘Operation Rose’ in Northumberland, which took place a few years ago? It is becoming more apparent that it was a whitewash as more victims come forward each day and each month.”
May: “I am happy to take away the point that the honourable gentleman raises. It is precisely because I want to ensure that we cover all the cases that have come up that I think it is important that the terms of the inquiry panel are drawn quite widely. I will look into the matter that he raises.”
Rob Wilson (Conservative): “It is important that all public institutions, including Parliament and the NHS, are held to account. In that respect, will she confirm that the inquiry will have full access to information from quasi-public bodies, such as the BBC, as well as from institutions where we know significant child abuse has taken place, such as the Church?”
May: “As I have said, the terms of reference will be published in due course. It is my intention that it should be a wide inquiry. It should therefore be possible for it to look not just at state institutions but at other bodies to see whether they have been protecting children appropriately or not, as the case may be.”
Lisa Nandy (Labour): “In the mid-1990’s, a senior ex-whip who had served in the 1970’s told the BBC that the Whips’ Office routinely helped MPs with scandals, including those, in his own words, “involving small boys”, and that they did so to exert control over those individuals and prevent problems for the government. That is just one powerful example of how personal and political interests can conspire to prevent justice from happening. May we have a full commitment that the inquiry will consider not just the police and social services but what happens at the heart of power, and that if those systems are found to exist today, they will be overturned, whether or not it makes life uncomfortable for political parties, Parliament or the government?”
May: “It is not my intention that political parties be outside the scope of the inquiry. It has to be wide-ranging, and it has to look at every area where it is possible that people have been guilty of abuse. We need to learn lessons to ensure that the systems we have in place are able to identify that and deal with it appropriately.”
Paul Flynn (Labour): “Sir Jimmy Savile was the honoured invited guest at 11 New Year’s eve parties hosted by a prime minister. He was given the keys to two hospitals by health ministers. He was a trusted friend of royalty. Can we know whether the intelligence services had surveillance on this man? If they did put in reports, why was no action taken on them?”
May: “In response to an earlier question, I addressed the issue of my expectation of the panel being able to have as much access to government papers as possible. On the wider issue the honourable gentleman raises, this is precisely why we need to look back at these cases, and ask why somebody who was serially abusing a large number of people – children and adults – over a period of time was able to do so while continuing to be feted by society at large.”
Mark Reckless (Conservative): “The home secretary mentioned political parties. On alleged child abuse by past or present members of Parliament, will she confirm whether the inquiry will consider any allegations or evidence held by the whips?”
May: “The intention of the inquiry panel is to be able to look as widely as possible at these issues. I should perhaps clarify a point: the inquiry panel will not be conducting investigations into specific allegations, which would properly be matters for criminal investigations. It is looking across the board at how these matters have been approached in the past and asking the question – I intend this to be drawn quite widely – whether the proper protections for children were in place, and if not, whether those gaps still exist today, and if so, what we need to do to fill those gaps. I expect as much information as possible to be given to the panel to enable it to achieve that.”
Tim Loughton (Conservative): “I commend my right honourable friend for – uniquely, it would seem – understanding the gravity of these never-ending revelations, and the need for transparency and urgency in the investigation of them.”
“Will the panel have the power to summon evidence and subpoena witnesses, will it be able to go where it needs to go, and, crucially, will it be able to trigger criminal investigations of anyone who is found to be responsible for covering up such acts, rather than just the perpetrators?”
May: “I thank my honourable friend for his comments. I also commend him for the work that he has done for many years, and not just as minister for children: I remember how assiduous he was during our time in opposition in trying to ensure that children were properly protected, and that issues such as the abuse and exploitation of children, and their lack of safety, were taken into account and dealt with properly.
“If the panel found allegations that it believed would be dealt with more appropriately by the police through a criminal investigation, I would expect the allegations to be passed to the police for that purpose.
“The panel will be able to call witnesses. Its initial structure will not enable it to require witnesses to come before it, and it will have to consider whether calling a witness would in any way jeopardise or prejudice a criminal investigation that was taking place if that individual was involved in the investigation. However, as I have said, if the chairman decides to recommend that the inquiry panel be turned into a full statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 – which would, of course, have the right to require witnesses to come forward – we will make it absolutely clear that we will go down that route.”
Phillip Lee (Conservative): “Is the home secretary satisfied that the police, and in particular the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, have the necessary powers to protect victims from ongoing blackmail? In particular, I gather that there are general concerns around the potential use of photographs and films from the 1970’s and 1980’s that have been digitised in order to discourage victims from coming forward.”
May: “I will look into the specific issue he has raised about the films or videos from the 1970’s that have been digitised. I am satisfied generally that CEOP does have the powers it needs, but he has raised a very specific issue and I will look into it and get back to him.”
John Mann (Labour): “Operation Fernbridge has been given details of the blocked 1988 investigation into child prostitution, sex rings, prominent people and children’s homes in Lambeth. Can we be certain that it has sufficient resources to see whether those files still exist – and if not, where they have gone – and to prosecute if possible?”
May: “On the resources available to Operation Fernbridge, it is an operational matter for the commissioner to determine what resources are appropriate for the level of investigation that is necessary. I am sure that we all want the same thing: to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. The whole point of the inquiry panel is to look at lessons learned as a result of these various reviews of historical allegations that have taken place. Obviously, I would expect it to be wide ranging in ensuring that it is indeed identifying all the lessons that need to be learned and the actions that need to be taken.”
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